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Health disparities put deaf community at risk

Deaf individuals are up to seven times as likely as their hearing peers to have heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes. That's according to research from the RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf and the University of Michigan.

Professor Peter Hauser, director of NTID's Center on Cognition and Language, recently reported to a United Nations committee in Geneva, Switzerland, about the problem. Hauser said, through an interpreter, these health disparities are the result of knowledge gaps in the deaf community.

"Hearing people, normally the more educated they are, the more they also know about health issues," Hauser said, "but that's not true for the deaf community. There are deaf individuals with Master's degrees and PhDs who don't know as much about health information as their hearing peers."

On reason is deaf individuals may not be aware of their family's medical history  because often those conversations happen in spoken English. The same barrier keeps deaf and hard of hearing people from picking up health information on the radio or television.

In RIT's home of Rochester, for example, there is a high per capita deaf population. Hauser said a lot of doctors there are fluent in American Sign Language or understand how to use interpreters, but that's not necessarily the case in the rest of the country or in other parts of the world. Even in Rochester, he said, there is room for improvement.

"I guess part of the reason is high turnover,” Hauser said. “People move to Rochester and then move away. Or they move here and they're not familiar with the deaf community and so we have to consistently educate people about deaf individuals and we have to continue educating parents who just found out that their child is deaf."

Hauser stressed the need for more qualified sign language interpreters with training in health care and more opportunities for deaf individuals to get training in health care professions. He said it is also important to train hearing health care providers on how to work with deaf co-workers, patients and their family members.

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